WRITTEN BY DEBRA LYNN
North Island residents were treated to a channeling of the spirit of Edith Piaf with a powerful musical performance by Joëlle Rabu and her son, Nico Rhodes, on March 12 at the Port Hardy Civic Centre.
Rabu, whose family immigrated from France, was born in Manitoba and grew up on Vancouver Island. With Continental French being her first language, she has a natural cultural affinity for the music of Piaf. She didn’t just perform her music convincingly, however, she seemed like the embodiment of Piaf! I contemplated that this might be a “KD Lang believing she is the reincarnation of Patsy Kline” sort of situation. Alas, this is not possible, since Rabu was already born before Piaf died.
To say that Rabu projects well is an understatement! She even hit a few operatic notes. She captures not only the melancholy timbre and forcefulness of Piaf’s songs, but character of the times she lived in. Born on a policeman’s cape in 1915 to a father who was a street performer and a mother who was a café singer, Piaf grew up in a Paris brothel. Rabu’s performance was like a time travel experience to a place in time where none of us have been. I think this is because she is also an actor. She knows how to infuse the appropriate emotional weight even to those slow and sad songs.
Nico Rhodes, accompanying his mother on piano, also had dramatic energy. He used a lot of whole-body movement in his playing, seeming to be “really getting into it.”
Rhodes performed a feat of musical acrobatics by composing a piece on the spot after an interaction with the audience. He asked them to choose five notes which he then transformed into a complex composition that was a little bit jazzy but also a little bit classical. The result came across as complete, like it had already been previously recorded! Rabu connected the sound to the “FiLoMi” (fishing, logging, mining) motto of Port Hardy, hence calling it “The Port Hardy Song.” It would certainly be a good compliment to scenes of vast tall forests and breaking ocean waves.
Rabu and Rhodes also had a little fun with the audience. Complaining that they were “doing all the work,” they proceeded to engage the largely non-francophone audience to sing along with them in French. Audience members were aided with a phonetic script to follow. Even with my background as a French speaker, it wasn’t easy to memorize the words on such short notice. The result was an audience making a lot of silly noises. I later realized that this was a means to loosen people up, to shake off the pandemic cobwebs and perhaps also cultivate an appreciation for the French language. It looks like some people’s high school French kicked in as they kept trying to sing the song during the break right after the exercise was over.
All of the above were some of the ways that the pair developed a good connection with the audience. Only about three-quarters of the auditorium was filled, but the relatively small group seemed to grow into a full house by the end of the performance because of their intensifying enthusiasm.
The concert was uplifting. The combination of Rabu’s compelling voice, Rhodes’ lively piano playing and the inspirational songs from Piaf, Broadway and the movies was conducive to that “I can do anything” feeling, and the idea that maybe tomorrow will be “a really good day.”
Debra Lynn has a BFA in art and design from the University of Alberta and an MA in art education from Concordia University in Montreal. She is the instructor and coordinator of the “Little Picassos,” “Paint Club” and “Adventures in Art” art programs for kids in Port McNeill